Updated: September 28, 2018 04:38 AM GMT
A boy wearing a blue mask with tears of blood takes part in a protest march of ethnic Uyghurs asking for the European Union to call on China to respect human rights in Xinjiang and close its 're-education centers' where Uyghurs are being detained, during a demonstration near EU institutions in Brussels, Belgium in this April 27 file photo. (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
The news that children of China's Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province are being placed into orphanages despite their parents still being alive suggests the state's crackdown is worsening in this resource-rich region.
Beijing's nine-year "strike hard" campaign against Uyghur culture has seen a clampdown on regular Muslim practices including bans on men growing beards, women wearing Muslim clothing, daylight fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and minors worshipping in mosques.
The campaign has escalated in the wake of Chen Quanguo being transferred from Tibet to serve as Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) at the instruction of President Xi Jinping.
Chen has replicated a number of repressive policies he instituted in Tibet including deploying tens of thousands of government and party officials across the region.
This has seen the government establish a string of "re-education" camps — increasingly dubbed "concentration camps" by international human rights agencies — where up to I million people are now interred, according to a Sept. 24 report from Amnesty International.
"Kairat Samarkan was sent to a detention camp in October 2017, after he returned to the XUAR following a short visit to neighboring Kazakhstan," the Amnesty report said
"Kairat told Amnesty that he was hooded, made to wear shackles on his arms and legs and was forced to stand in a fixed position for 12 hours when first detained," it continued.
"There were nearly 6,000 people held in the same camp, where they were forced to sing political songs and study speeches of the Chinese Communist Party," the report stated.
"They could not talk to each other and were forced to chant 'Long live Xi Jinping' before meals. Kairat told Amnesty that his treatment drove him to attempt suicide just before his release."
Another recent report by Human Rights Watch added that outside the camps, Uyghurs face arbitrary arrest and surveillance by the authorities.
They also risk having their passports are confiscated and are required to attend flag-raising ceremonies and meetings where they denounce their families and praise the Party, the report said.
"It's difficult to get the number of people detained in these camps due the lack of transparency of the Chinese government," Patrick Poon, a China researcher from Amnesty International, told ucanews.com.
"From what we have seen in our research of existing information, we believe the estimate of over one million detained would be a fair estimate. From our interviews with over 100 people, mostly in Kazakhstan, and about a dozen from other places around the world, their relatives are detained or lost contact since early 2017. And they come from different places in the XUAR."
The definitive academic study on the situation in Xinjiang was penned by Adrian Zenz, a lecturer on social research methods at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany, according to James Leibold, an associate professor of politics at Melbourne's LaTrobe University.
Zenz forensically examined online contracts for construction and workers at the camps to produce his study.
"He has come up with a figure of 800,000 to a million based on the size of these camps," Leibold said.
"There is a a lot of speculative reporting as we get nothing back from Beijing. There is also a definitional problem around what re-education is, what it looks like, and so on," Leibold told ucanews.com.
He said the data of contracts relating to the construction of orphanages "is pretty convincing" in most cases, adding many children are being left to the care of elderly relatives as their parents are being detained in the camps. Other, less fortunate children are left to become wards of the state, he said.
"To what extent this is an expansion of state schooling, is hard to say," Leibold said, adding the Chinese government has touted two years of free kindergarten education in Xinjiang.
"That is quite an incredible and generous program but the devil is in the details," Leibold said.
Amnesty's Poon added: "From the people we talked to, children are being separated from their parents. In some cases, the parents are kept in the camps while the children are left with their grandparents, but they are under tight surveillance. In some cases, the parents lost contact with their children."
Leibold said the main aim of the mass detention camps is "to scoop up a generation of Uyghurs who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s so all segments of the Uyghur population are subjected to state propaganda. The generation that grew up under Mao is generally more sympathetic to Beijing."
"Some in the scholarly community were slow to recognize that a portion of the community have become radicalized in their search for culture and meaning. We also know that some became radicalized outside of China, due to reports of Uyghurs fighting in Afghanistan and Syria," he added.
Poon cited Amnesty's research of documents and reports, and interviews with relatives of those detained, to claim that authorities in the region started confiscating the passports of ethnic minorities, possibly as early as last year.
The Party has also been collecting their biometric data, checking their communications with family members overseas, and sending people to the "transformation-through-education" camps since a series of policies on "de-extremification" in the region were launched in 2017, he said.
"Their response has been disproportionate, and the sensible conclusion to all this is more radicalization. I can't see how any good will come of this," Leibold said.
Still, as long as China continues to throw massive resources behind this campaign in terms of both human capital and surveillance technology, it is demonstrating the effectiveness of its so-called "strike hard" program.
There has not been a Uyghur-instigated terror attack in China since February 2017, in southern Xinjiang's Holtan. This suggests the government's scheme has been quite effective, Leibold said.
"But what will become of these individuals when they go back into society? Clearly they will be closely monitored," he added.
"The question is, how does this end and what is the next step?"